The thing about old friends is that they knew you when. When you were young and beautiful. When you were chaotic and broken. When you were doing completely different things and hadn’t yet even glimpsed your true path, let alone set foot on it. When the arc of your life was only a dotted line of potentialities, and the shapes that would come to define you were faint contours discernible only in retrospect, or by your most prophetic friend — the one whose predictions didn’t make a lick of sense at the time.
My old friend George came to visit with me in LA recently. She’s flown in from London several times in the past few years because she’s a producer of music documentaries, a job that sometimes brings her to Hollywood. It’s been so lovely to enrich our friendship at this stage, decades after the time when we were deep in each other’s lives on a daily basis.
I’ve roasted a whole branzino with lemon and herbs, which we eat with fennel slaw and an oven-warmed crusty baguette. We toast to our friendship with kombucha and I am grateful that we no longer need alcohol to socialize, now that our mad, wild ways are behind us.
We are a bit stunned to find ourselves in our fifties now, and relieved that we’re holding up pretty well, all things considered. How is it that we look so different now, but also sort of exactly the same? “This is why we need to stay in touch with people who knew us before we were old,” she tells me. “We see each other from the inside out.” George pokes the hollow of my cheek as she imitates a friend who recently said to her, “You don’t need Botox, you just need a LOT of filler.” We decide that the keys to aging well naturally are these: Keep fit, dress well, and have a good haircut.
George was always one of my more glamorous friends. I’m not talking about manicures and fancy purses, but an urban-bohemian kind of glamor. I admired her effortlessly cool street style, her voluminous parachute pants with acid-yellow straps by Maharishi, accessorized with a colorful Guatemalan sling in which she toted her baby daughter around Portobello.
Our daughters are now approaching the age that George and I were when we first met at baby swimming class. It’s an odd thing to see how the shadows of the crises we lived through as young, struggling single mothers fall or don’t fall across our daughters’ lives as young women. I look at my daughter now; her fears and loves, obsessions and opinions, her strengths and vulnerabilities, and I wonder: Could you cope with what I went through at your age? The answer seems to be no. But then, I didn’t exactly cope with it either, and my breaking fractured her too. What I now know is that a parent in crisis is a child in crisis, and the chain of inter-generational trauma will have its way with us until we learn to break its links.
George and I can’t quite believe how far we’ve come, and even that we survived those very difficult years at all, when there was no evidence to suggest that we would ever get on our feet, much less that I’d wind up publishing self-help books and that her films would screen at Sundance and Cannes.
Back then, we were hummingbirds in a gale, trying our best to take each other under our wing. Along with other insecurely housed single mums of London’s Ladbroke Grove, we lashed our life rafts together to create a floating village that sustained us as we sublet, squatted, and couch-surfed our way around the neighborhood while trying to get ourselves and our children into a secure, affordable home. George was house-sitting for a musician friend on tour when she took me in the first time I left my daughter’s father, the time he tried to kick me down the garden stairs. It would be another 18 months before we were out of his house for good.
We watched each other’s kids and fed them fish fingers, filled their sippy cups with diluted apple juice, passed around outgrown shoes, and poured our worries out to one another over endless cups of strong, milky tea.
We shared our rations and resources, and traded insider knowledge vital to our survival: Where to find the most welcoming playgroups where young mums outnumber nannies and the tea and biscuits are free. That Tesco will let you buy pints of organic milk with your milk tokens if you combine them two for one. A hot tip on a housing co-op that’s accepting new members onto its waitlist. The name of the good therapist at the free mental health clinic. A legal advocacy service that you probably qualify for. A children’s clothing swap. Which market vendors will sell you a bag of overripe fresh fruit for one pound at the end of the trading day.
It wasn’t all horror and angst, of course. There were kids’ birthday parties and picnics in the park, lazy afternoons at a public paddling pool, outings to art galleries, and sleepovers at which we stayed up late laughing and gossiping over cheap vinho verde and a well-worn Bjork CD after the children were tucked up in bed.
Eventually, life stabilized. We each found secure housing and gainful employment, not necessarily in that order. I moved home to Canada and George and I fell out of touch for a spell.
A couple of years after I left England I was trying to track down a specific designer paint color that had drenched the walls of George’s bedroom, called Kinky Pink. Scouring interiors blogs, I read in a comment that it had been discontinued. The commenter’s name was George, and I knew that it was her. It was like bumping into a cousin on Mars.
In recent years George has been spending most of her time in a cottage in Dorset, where one of her favorite pastimes is to walk the local fields in the spring after tilling, collecting mesolithic stone implements churned up in the furrowed loam. Sitting on my sofa in Los Angeles, she shows me a picture of her prized collection. Spear tips and arrow heads, borers and scrapers, “made by a hand to fit a hand 10,000 years ago,” she tells me. “When I hold one of these objects I’m holding hands across millennia with actual free-range wild people.”
The makers of these objects were industrious and resourceful, patient and determined. Creative, too.
George shows me a multi-tool — an elongated stone with a row of divots and points forming a serrated cutter on one side, and a smooth, sharp blade on the other. At the bottom end, a blunt, rounded scraper. At the top, a nipple-shaped borer, all painstakingly chipped into the flint by the careful strikes of a purposeful hand.
These delicate marks are not only functional, she says, they suggest aesthetic considerations too. These early humans had the inclination to create beauty as well as utility. “I’m sure this red dot was something special to the person who made this,” she says, pointing to a small, white stone cutting tool with a perfect tiny circle of rust red at its center. “Looks like a harvest moon.”
These features tell such a deep old story, if you care to really look and understand how such an object is made; what kind of strike creates a functional or decorative mark, and how close that strike can come to destroying beauty or functionality altogether.
And here is an extra special thing: The old friend with whom you shared not just any old time gone by but your darkest season of hardship, and who has read the lost early volumes in your personal saga.
When I look at George and she looks at me, we see the mature women we are today; settled, even accomplished. And each of us knows just how far the other has traveled to get here. Having witnessed the blows that shaped us, we marvel at each other’s evolving yet enduring form.
Our sharpest edges have blunted, made safer to handle over time. Some fissures have held fast, others have deepened or cracked wide open. But we are not broken. We are still functional, still recognizable to each other. And we see beauty in the marks that tell the story of our making.
This piece first appeared in November 2022 on The Underwire, my Substack publication. You can get all my content by email as soon as it’s published by subscribing to The Underwire here!